“Fin de siècle,” murmured LordHenry/ “Fin du globe,” answered his hostess/ “I wish it were fin du globe,”said Dorian, with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment” (Wilde 205)At the end of the 19th Century De Jouvenot and H. Micard gavethe name Fin De Siècle (End ofCentury) to one of their plays from 1889. None of them supposed that the namewould become a technical term all over Europe and would be used without translation:Fin De Siècle. However,there is not one single name for the concept; it is termed „Aestheticism,?„Aesthetic Movement,? „Decadence,? „Beauty without realism,? „Art for art’ssake,? and „Art for its own sake? (Prettejohn 2).
According to Ruth Livesey in the article Fin De Siècle, the term is associated “with those writers andartists whose work displayed a debt to French decadent, symbolist, ornaturalist writers and artists.” This age fought against the angular andartificial Victorian conventions and traditions. In the artists of those timesthere was a desire for psychic and moral purity. They were seeking after newlifestyles which lead to numerous conflicts. How to live? What is extreme? Whatdoes it mean to be moral or immoral? After these questions, the first authorcoming into our mind is Oscar Wilde. He is the English Decadent Movement, theEnglish Symbolism and the head actor of his age. “By making himself thepersonification of artifice and by his ultimately tragic belief that the worldcan be controlled by wit, Wilde become a central symbol of the English fin de siècle” (Coote 556).
It was an utterly perplexed era. People were trying to find their way inthe world. The philosophy of beauty was extremely important in people’s lifeand their externals. The writing style became colourful and in all cases itexpressed the readers’ desire for a better world.
This explains the apparitionof symbols, metaphors, supernatural characters and plots in literature. Aperfect example for this is the Portray in ThePicture of Dorian Gray which ages instead of the protagonist. Neither doesDorian Gray find his way out as the murder of those people who confront himwith the real world is not the correct solution.As stated by Richard Ellmann, the Ninetees which began in 1889 withMicard’s and Juvenot’s play and lasted until 1895, “were the years in whichaestheticism was revised and perfected” with the help of Wilde. “Artisticfreedom, “full expression of personality”, “the invasion of forbidden areas” becamepossible.
“Decorum became merely a formal attribute of works of art, not aquestion of morality” He states that “people also learned from Wilde how toshape a sentence and live in style” (288). The author calls this period “Theage of Dorian”, because in The Picture ofDorian Gray the protagonists talk in maxims. The book contains plenty of”catch phrases”, “conversational gambits”, “insouciances and contrariness”(289). Ellmannproclaims that for Wilde, “aestheticism was not a creed but a problem.” Hedisclaims the expression: “art for art’s sake”, but found the theme of a manand his portrait perfect for writing about the man in decay (292).His love of aestheticism and Greek beauty started at Magdalen College inOxford where he also met Walter Pater who in 1873 published The Renaissance. This book marks thebeginning of the English decadence.
Wilde was strongly influenced by Pater whobelieved that we should enjoy every moment of our life. This lifestyle wasundoubtedly followed by Wilde who became a real hedonist.In 1894 the literary and art journal “The Yellow Book” appeared on themarket.
This was one of the iconic publications of the 1890s aestheticism anddecadence. It played a significant role in promoting some of the most importantgenres of fin de siècle. Wilde never published in the journal, becauseBeardsley, the founder of the magazine disliked him. Thus it is not surprisingthat a major corrupting influence on Dorian Gray is “the yellow book” which hereceives from Lord Henry after the suicide of his girlfriend, Sybil Vane.After readingthe book the shy, modest young men loses his moral sense and transforms into aselfish heartbreaker who plays with women, accepts only fair weather frienshipsand what is more, he resorts to homicide in order to solve his problems.
Oscar Wilde described himselfas a ‘Professor of Æsthetics and a Critic of Art’….” (Harris 39). In Atlantaa Constitution reporter named him “The Great Esthete” in an article entitled”Oscar Wilde: Arrival of the great Esthete” (Mikhail 93).
However, numerouscontemporary writers similar to Beardsley did not accept his aestheticismmainly because of his immoral lifestyle. In an interview which he gave on a visit inAmerica he defined aestheticism in the following way: “aestheticism is a searchafter the signs of the beautiful. It is the science through which men lookafter the correlation which exists in the arts. It is, to speak more exactly,the search after the secret of life” (Mikhail 37). Wilde himself lived a covertlife so after this explanation it is not surprising that he was attracted byaestheticism.In her essay, Aesthetic Principlesin Oscar Wilde’s the Picture of Dorian Gray, Sarah Gustaffson claims thatWilde uses this novel to spread his own interpretations of Aestheticism.
Patertaught Wilde the basic ideas of Aestheticism in the same way Lord Henry teachesDorian Gray about the values of life. Dorian Gray proves to be a perfectstudent because he shortly becomes a dissolute hedonist similar to Lord Henrywho strives for finding selfish solutions to his problems.Many of Lord Henry’sstatements, for example „the aim of life is self-development” are Wilde’s ownopinions, so he uses Lord Henry to share his philosophy of Aestheticism withthe reader.Cristina Pascual Aransáez as well statesthat Wilde “was shaping a personal aesthetic theory”.
He did not endorse thetheory of art for art’s sake which declared the uselessness of art. He wasconvinced that “Beauty was a value in itself” and a work of art puts beautyabove everything else which does not mean that “it could not fulfil moralpurposes” (28).